Combing Through the Artifacts

Written by: Amy Michael

Primary Source: Campus Archaeology Program Blog, September 29, 2016.

While Lisa Bright and I were accessioning artifacts from the West Circle Drive privy excavation, we noticed that one of the short combs had some lettering. Faint, tiny print spelled out, “IRC CO. G YEARS” with a few other letters (or numbers) that we could not read. Some quick Googling brought up the India Rubber Company based out of New York City, one of the first two hard rubber companies to sell products made through the process of vulcanization.

India Rubber Company Ad - Image Source

India Rubber Company Ad – Image Source

India Rubber Company Ad for Unbreakable Combs - Image Source

India Rubber Company Ad for Unbreakable Combs – Image Source

Charles and Nelson Goodyear developed the vulcanization process, or applying heat to rubber treated with sulfur, in 1839 which allowed for hard rubber products to be produced in mass quantities. Through experimentation, Charles Goodyear was able to turn raw rubber into a malleable, stable substance, while Nelson Goodyear figured out how to adapt the pliable rubber into vulcanite (hard rubber) that could be used to make a number of personal items including buttons and brushes1. In the mid-1850s, ivory and wooden combs were largely en vogue until the Goodyear brothers utilized vulcanite to manufacture rubber combs of all sizes. Initially, the vulcanite combs cost twenty times as much as the combs previously in use, but (presumably) the superior quality of the rubber combs produced by the Goodyears contributed to their staying power2. Specialists who were originally trained in making each ivory and tortoiseshell by hand were replaced by comb-cutting machines by 18653. Mechanized production eventually allowed for the creation of two combs, whereby one comb was created from the spaces of the teeth of the other comb. Increased production and eventual expiration of hard rubber patents led to significant expansion in comb manufacturing, so India Rubber Company began to stamp each comb with the manufacturing date and a guarantee against breakage for twelve months3.

Indian rubber comb ad

India Rubber Comb Ad – Image Source

So what does vulcanized rubber have to do with Campus Archaeology? Enter: the beard (and mustache?) comb!

Comb from West Circle Privy - Image Source Amy Michael

Comb from West Circle Privy – Image Source Amy Michael

The comb measures approximately 3.5 inches in length and 1.25 inches in width, making it fairly small. Since the comb wound up in the privy, we can only assume that a recently clean shaven man was just done with all facial hair maintenance! Just kidding. It’s likely that the comb ended up in the privy accidentally, as the India Rubber Company was very proud of the durability of their allegedly unbreakable combs. Perhaps one of these guys, or someone similar to them, used the comb:

Photo of Faculty with facial hair, 1888. Image Courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Photo of Faculty with facial hair, 1888. Image Courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Hard rubber combs from the same time period have been found in other archaeological contexts and even wind up in art museums. Check out a fancy 1851 comb manufactured by India Rubber Company that is in the collections at the Met: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/16809. The excavation of the SS Republic, a famous shipwreck, yielded a number of artifacts produced by the India Rubber Company including combs, a woman’s headband, and even a hygienic douche (check out the artifacts here: http://odysseysvirtualmuseum.com/categories/SS-Republic/Artifacts/Personal-Necessities/).

As we go through the rest of the privy materials, we will continue to do historical research on each of the personal items found in the assemblage. Perhaps we will get lucky and find another dateable piece!

Sources:

1http://odysseysvirtualmuseum.com/products/Hair-Comb.html

2Depew, Chauncey Mitchell, ed. 1795-1895. One Hundred Years of American Commerce…: A History of American Commerce by One Hundred Americans, with a Chronological Table of the Important Events of American Commerce and Invention Within the Past One Hundred Years. DO Haynes & Company, 1895.

3The India-Rubber Journal. The History of a Large Rubber Firm. May 21, 1906.

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Amy Michael
Amy Michael primarily studies bioarchaeology of the ancient Maya and her dissertation research focuses on the skeletal remains of individuals buried in peripheral caves and rockshelters. Beyond that work, she enjoys the historical archaeology projects she’s able to work on through CAP, especially those that involve archival research. Amy will be continuing her project this semester using archival documents (memoirs, scrapbooks, diaries, etc…) written by female students to generate a predictive model for women’s space on the historic campus. We know when women were admitted and what they likely studied, but these documents provide clues to where female students would have gathered and experienced college life. Perhaps if we can isolate these spaces, we may be able to piece together a narrative (and a research excavation plan) focusing on gendered use of campus space.